The Irish War of Independence and Civil War in Co. Roscommon

By Kathleen Hegarty Thorne

Ireland is a very small country in land mass. Compared to industrialized England, it is a poor cousin in the family of imperialists. Challenging the most powerful empire on which the sun never set was a daunting task in 1916, especially when that power was located twenty miles offshore and financed the policing and the intelligence gathering in the occupied land. Mass assaults (exemplified by the World War I trench warfare charges) were suicidal missions for a rural country like Ireland. Another type of challenge was needed.

Guerilla warfare, although aided by the association of many Irish rebels in Frongoch (the “Irish University” in Wales), was an evolving phenomenon. Men who were threatened by the police and dared not live at home banded together, formed a fighting unit, and lived on in Irish lore as Flying Columns. Those fighting units in Roscommon blossomed in different parts of the county at different times, mostly due to the ability and verve of the men destined to lead them.

The War of Independence was no small scuffle by a few hotheads. England was in no way going to relinquish her nearest colony without a fierce fight, and the people of Roscommon were up for it.

Unlike a National Army, the IRA chose its own leaders. Locals elected those men whom they thought could best organize and direct them. It helped enormously if that person had some military expertise or at least welcomed those around him who did. The Flying Column of the 3rd Battalion South Roscommon, which was responsible for the Scramogue Ambush, had, within its ranks, men who had fought in the British Army in World War I (e.g. Cushy Hughes of Kilnalosset, Kilgefin, and John Gibbons of Aghamuck, Ballagh), who exhibited steady nerves, and possessed a dead-eye aim with a rifle. Michael Quinn of Fairymount, Kilgefin, was the Intelligence Officer for Pat Madden’s Flying Column. He performed his duties so deftly that few in the town of Roscommon even knew he was associated with the Volunteers. Joe Satchwell of Termon Beg, Castlerea, was actually saved because of his membership in the British Army. The Tans who shot Sean Bergin and Stephen McDermott in the Woodlands of Loughglynn recognized Satchwell as a former fellow soldier and left him alive.

(Pat Madden, commander of the Flying Column)

A number of former members of the British Army served as drill instructors for local Companies:

James Carroll (Ballymacurley) served as the Director of Training for No. 2 Brigade in the 2nd Western Division

Jack Conboy (Kilmore, Athleague) served with the British Army in France in a horse regiment. Jack was the Head Centre for the IRB in the Athleague area. He also was part of Pat Madden’s Flying Column.

Patrick Henry served as drill master for Drum Company in O’Connell’s field and on the lands of Mount Hussey.

Tom Rogers was the first drill instructor of the Loughglynn Company in 1917.

Patrick Wynne, a native of Ballinaheglish, had joined the British Army and served as a drummer boy in the Boer War. Upon his return to Ireland, he trained members of the Rahara Company in south Roscommon. A small man in stature, his expectations were large. His walk was erect, his mind sharp, his commands exacting!

Even the fathers of Volunteers became involved in readying the fresh recruits of Roscommon’s fields. The father of Luke Duffy of Clooncagh acted as drill instructor for the Kilgefin Company.

Membership and activity levels in various parts of the county varied widely. The North Roscommon Brigade claimed 1,191 members as of 1 July 1921, while the smaller Battalion area around Castlerea counted 309. That Battalion had put forth as Brigade O/C a wonderful speaker and exceptional organizer but not one who had the stomach for steel-tempered ambushes. He was deemed rather “harmless by the local RIC.” But he was also hampered by the presence of a spy within the Brigade ranks. Roscommon town was inundated with Crown troops stationed at the barracks and were very close to reinforcements from Athlone. Ambushes in the town were non-existent. Some local Volunteers focused on intelligence gathering as a way of thwarting Crown ambitions. Willie Kilmartin, a solicitor’s clerk in Roscommon town, along with Father Michael O’Flanagan, served as go-betweens for messages from the IRA to Michael Collins in Dublin and vice-versa.

The Boyle Battalion, although not particularly effective against the British during the War of Independence, fought like tigers during the Civil War, mostly in adjoining counties Mayo, Sligo, and sometimes Leitrim. (The Divisional structural of the IRA by that time had incorporated areas that crossed over county borders.) After the fall of Boyle in early July 1922, men blew up bridges, attacked Manorhamiliton Barracks, joined Frank Carty’s men in the Sligo mountains, marched into County Mayo and burned the gaol and courthouse in Castlebar, and made several attempts to capture Swinford Barracks. In early November 1922, the Arigna Flying Column had a go at Dromahair Barracks in Co. Leitrim.

(Right: War of Independence Commemorative Military Memorial at Shankill Cross near Elphon, County Roscommon.)

South Roscommon, because of its narrowing geography sandwiched between Galway and the Shannon River and also because of the huge presence of British troops in Athlone, did not succeed in many ambushes during the Tan War. It was only during the Civil War that men from the area, led by Matt Davis from Kilteevan, as well as William Murray of Curry, James Whelan of Ardmullan, Curraghboy, and Hubert Watson of Kiltoom, and Galway Volunteer William Mulrooney of Ballygar staged activities in that area ─ sabotage of trains, blocking roads, destruction of bridges, etc. Most of the activists were removed from the scene by arrests or the capture in November 1922 of Davis and eight others on Quaker Island.

Roscommon is a rural land, sparsely populated as compared to counties Cork and Dublin. But the grit and devotion of the men and women within its borders equaled the determination of Ireland’s southern and eastern counties. Roscommon Volunteers were tortured, shot in their beds, lay in the soggy ground for ambushes that never materialized, stopped trains and unloaded petrol, which would later be used to burn barracks, and patrolled the train stations to enforce the Belfast Boycott.

The Republican Police kept the lid on local crime. In a 2003 interview with John Kilcline, son of Johnny, the son remarked that his father had received a note from Ned Hegarty, Chief of the Republican Police in south Roscommon, instructing him to kill a local man for suspected treachery. At the top of the note were the words, “Burn this BEFORE you read it.” Johnny Kilcline had declined to eliminate his neighbor but did keep the communication for decades before a cave-in of a rain-soaked straw roof in an outbuilding claimed it for the ages. Those who served with the Republican Police had to guard, scout, and depend on the warmth and bravery of the women who fed and watched over them. These members of Cumann na mBan did the same for their fighting men. A famous “punishment” meted out to civil offenders was to tie up the perpetrator at the church gate with a note pinned to his/her chest. According to John Snee of the East Mayo Brigade, “They (the Republican Police) cured crime more than the RIC ever did.”

Unforeseen obstacles cropped up. There was a spy within the 1st Battalion South area around Castlerea. A disproportionate number of men killed by British agents and the RIC in the Tan War in Roscommon came from this area due to the information supplied by this “mole.” Some Volunteers were instructed to burn the symbols of English authority and were sometimes caught up in flames, many of the men not being familiar with the highly flammable quality of petrol. Some Strokestown Volunteers (Stephen Scally, John Hunt, Martin O’Connor, and Peter Flanagan) endured long and horrible recoveries from their wounds after attempting to torch the courthouse. Others were incapacitated for years due to the injuries incurred from British rifle butts smashed against their spine (Brian Dorr of Ballagh, Hillstreet).

(Below: a group of RIC constables)

Contributions varied. Sergeant John Duffy, a RIC man stationed in Athlone, saved the local IRA armament stash by giving a message to a friend to relay to Sean Hurley (IRA leader in Athlone), telling him of an upcoming raid. When Duffy was transferred to Roscommon town, he secretly made a key to the District Inspector’s office and accessed the Wanted List of 3,912 rebels sought by the authorities countrywide. He gave a copy of the list to Frank Simons, who in turn forwarded it on to Michael Collins. Duffy also successfully stole the police cipher code, and through the efforts of a post office clerk named McNamara, news of upcoming raids on Roscommon men was decoded by the local IRA, thus saving a number of Volunteers from a bullet. Thomas Farrell served as a liaison between Sgt. Duffy and the local Volunteers, often relaying messages concerning life and death.

Some daring souls ventured to create a bomb factory on the land of John Kelly in Muckinagh, Strokestown. The Roche brothers of Ballinameen lent their expertise to bomb-making. Their quick-thinking mother threw a blanket over the top of one that was lying on the bed when policemen unexpectedly barged into their cottage. The McCormack brothers of Tang in Co. Westmeath joined forces with Athlone men and marched to Shannonbridge for guns for the Rising that never came to the area because the rifles that were supposed to arrive had been dumped in the Atlantic along the Kerry coast. Henry O’Brien of Strand Street, Athlone, suffered a lifetime of stomach pains because he had not wanted to impose on the small farmers when he was on the run and had instead eaten the pig swill to quell his hunger. Jim Brady, who worked in the Arigna mines, spent hours facing a wall of dirt in a cramped tunnel under the Curragh and, spoon by spoon, extracted enough soil to allow for an escape of seventy men in September 1921. Pat Conboy of Fuerty and Jim Breheny of Portrunny maintained their devotion to the Republican cause even into the 1940s when they were incarcerated in the Curragh during the Second World War.

Both female and male activists had to do their part in the overall transformation of Ireland from a dependent agrarian colony to a self-functioning nation. Without the women of Roscommon supporting their men, the county’s rebellion would have been squashed in a fortnight. Rita Leneghan (Lenehan) of Ashforth scoffed at danger and carried messages, relayed instructions, scouted ahead of ambushes, and guarded arms. Maggie Hegarty of Ballinaheglish used to carry dispatches in the steel tube of her bicycle. Once when the Tans stopped her, they gave her a thorough search, then heaved her bicycle into the ditch. When they had departed, she calmly retrieved her cycle and pedaled off to deliver the message. The Sharkey sisters of Strokestown held rifles in their home for Bernard Sweeney and Tom Gilroy of County Leitrim. They both suffered the discomfort of Mountjoy for their efforts. Brigid Dowling of Carricknaughton helped wounded men to safety, collected funds for clothing for the Active Service Unit, and became a member of the firing party over the graves of Kit McKeon and Toby Mannion during the Civil War. The women were the unseen backbone of the rebellion, and because they did not participate in ambushes, they are often forgotten or omitted from the historical renditions. But without a solid spine, the bones and flesh of the struggle would have melted into the ground.

The list of sacrifices made by various patriots in Roscommon could fill a book and still be deficient in itemizing all the harrowing and wretched circumstances and details of the period. The people of 1916 through 1923 suffered greatly and put forth Herculean efforts in their fight for an independent Ireland.

Who were the great leaders in the county? Pat Brennan and his brother James Stephen championed the Anti-Treaty faction in the Boyle area. Many in the 3rd Battalion South area threw in their lot with the Free State. In an interview in 1995 with Patrick Vaughan, brother of John Vaughan of Cloonsuck, Castlerea, Patrick mentioned that Gerald O’Connor gathered a large group of the 1st Battalion South and East Mayo men on the grounds of the Clonalis House in July 1922 and urged them to go home and not engage in killing fellow Irishmen. The messages received by Volunteers from their leaders throughout the county were divergent ─ from stout defense of the Republic to enlisting in the new National Army to staying above the fray. Many men simply followed the advice of their commanding officers, while others wrestled with the issues and decided their own paths. Some gravitated toward like-minded groups in adjoining counties. Others sat out the Civil War with regret and remorse in their heart.

In the mid-1990s, when this author interviewed local people in the Ballinaheglish area, some referred to Ned Hegarty as a man alone with his thoughts. He walked his fields, thumbs tucked under his suspenders, mourning the current state of Ireland, sorrowing in the sacrifices made during the wars, and supremely disappointed in the results.

Again, the question arises? Who were the great leaders of the fight? More importantly, who were the great men and women who followed them, who participated in the ambushes, burnings, smuggling of guns, sabotaging of trains, and drawing up plans of buildings for possible raids for arms? The strength of any struggle is only as effective as the grit of the common soldier willing to die for his convictions. Scores of Roscommon people proved their worth, and their souls rest easy knowing they gave their all, even though the realization of a united Ireland was an unfulfilled dream.

Known members of Roscommon Cumann na mBan

Norah Boland (Fourmilehouse)
Mary Breheny (Sandfield, Knockcroghery)
Winnie Brennan (Ballytrasna, Boyle)
Annie Collins (Lisonuffy) 3rd Battalion South area
Ellen "Ellie" Collins (Lisonuffy)
Kathleen Comber (Athlone)
Annie Connolly (Flaherty) (Fairymount, Kilrooskey)
“Lizzie” Cooney (Aghamuck, Kilgefin) 3rd Battalion South area
--- Cooney (Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim)
Ciss Cox (Kilbarry) Tarmonbarry Company area
Rosie Cox (Green St., Boyle)
Annie Cull (Arigna)
Katy Daly (Culleenaghmore, Slatta, Kilglass)
Katy Daly (Cornamagh)
Mrs. Patrick J. Delahunty (Boyle)
Margaret Dempsey (Boyle)
Maisie Donnelly (Coolderry, Four Roads)
Brigid Dowling (Carricknaughton, Athlone)
May Downes (Ballaghaderreen)
Agnes "Aggie" Doyle (Derreenaseer, Knockvicar, Boyle)
May Doyle (Derreenaseer, Knockvicar, Boyle)
The Duignans (Arigna)
Ann Dunning (Summerhill, Drum) south Roscommon
Kathy Dunning (Summerhill, Drum) south Roscommon
May Farrell (Moher) Kilgefin parish
Eva Fitzpatrick (Connaught St., Athlone)
May Flanagan (Ballaghaderreen)
Lily Frayne (Frain) (Drumman More, Ruskey)
Ann Gaffey (Garrynagowna) Summerhill area, south Roscommon
Mary Gaffey (Garrynagowna) Summerhill area, south Roscommon
Nellie Galvin (Summerhill area)
Annie Joe Gavigan (Ballylugnagon, Boyle)
May Gavigan (Ballylugnagon, Boyle)
Mrs. Geoghan (3rd Battalion North area)
Helen Gibbons (Ballincurry, Kilgefin)
Lizzie Gillhooly (Drumagissaun, Kilglass)
Nellie Gillhooly (Drumagissaun, Kilglass)
Ann Halligan (Carricknaughton, Drum, Athlone)
Nan Halligan (Carricknaughton, Drum, Athlone)
Margaret “Maggie” "Greta" Hegarty (Ballinaheglish)
Mary Ann Hegarty (Ballinaheglish)
Ann Hoban (Slatta, Kilglass)
Nelly Hogan (Garrynagowna, Drum)
Mary Hunt (Cloonloo, Boyle)
Margaret Judge (Geevagh, Boyle)
Cissie Kelly (Ballaghaderreen)
Josie Kelly (Ballaghaderreen)
Rose Kenny (The Glebe in Kilrooskey)
Maudie Kilmartin (Summerhill, Drum)
Bridget Lane (Four Roads)
Rita Leneghan (Lenehan) (Ashforth)
Mrs. James Lynch (Summerhill, Drum)
Katie McDermott (Ballybeg, Strokestown)
Mary McDermott (Cartron, Kilrooskey, Kilgefin)
Bridie McDonagh (Ballinagare)
Margaret McGann (Trilacroghan, Kilgefin)
Beasie McGarry (Garrow, Boyle)
Maisie McGarry (Ballymagrine, Tarmonbarry)
Mary Kate McGarry (Garrow, Boyle)
Liza McGuinness (Cloonmore, Tarmonbarry)
Margaret McNally (Elphin)
Lena Madden (Ballagh)
May Martin (Boyle)
Mrs. Martin (Ballinagare)
Mary Morley (Main St., Ballaghaderreen)
Mrs. Mullaney (Runnamoat, Ballinaheglish)
Becky Murray (Quarry Lane, Boyle)
Bridie Murray (Quarry Lane, Boyle)
Margaret Murray (Taylorstown, Drum, Athlone)
Marian Murray (Quarry Lane, Boyle)
Mary Murray (Clooncraff, Kilteevan)
Annie O’Connor (Church Street, Athlone)
Evangela O'Dowd (Graffoge, Scramogue, Strokestown)
Mollie Parker (Aghamuck, Kilgefin)
Bridget Seery (Cloonillan, Drum, Athlone)
Lena Sharkey (Drinaun, Strokestown)
Una Sharkey (Drinaun, Strokestown)
Tessie Shiel (Cagglestack, Strokestown)
Annie Simons (Carrowmoneen, Kilgefin)
Mary Kate Spellman (Ballaghaderreen)
Brighid Lyons Thornton (born at Moneenacully, Scramogue, Strokestown)
Mary Towey (Ballaghaderreen)
Nora Treacy (Ballinturly, Fuerty)
Cissie Tully (Newtownflood, Drum)
Maggie Tully (Newtownflood, Drum)
Kathleen Turbitt (Ross Lane, Boyle)

Sources:

"They Put the Flag a-Flyin’  The Roscommon Volunteers 1916−1923" by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne

"Echoes of Their Footsteps, Volume I," by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne

"Echoes of Their Footsteps, Volume II," by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne and Patrick Flanagan

"Echoes of Their Footsteps, Volume lII," by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne and Patrick Flanagan

Witness Statement Brigid Dowling, Carricknaughton

Witness Statement Sgt. John Duffy. RIC Roscommon town

Witness Statement George Fitzgerald, Ardmullan

Witness Statement of Rita Leneghan, Pat Brennan Papers

Witness Statement Michael McCormack, Drumraney, Athlone

Interview Paddy Concannon, Knockmurray, Castlerea, 14 August 2004

Interview Johnny Kilcline, Lecarrow, 26 October 2003

Interview Annie McManus, Arigna, 17 June 2002

Interview Pat Vaughan, Milton, Massachusetts, 10 April 1995

Interview John Snee (East Mayo Brigade), 16 September 1997

Correspondence Henry Owens, 9 June 2016

Mulcahy Papers P7 A 13-23

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Comment by The Wild Geese on January 18, 2024 at 10:59pm

About The Author: Kathleen Hegarty Thorne

Kathleen Hegarty Thorne’s love of Ireland and its fighting men and women ignited in 1992 during a visit to the Hegarty cottage in Ballinaheglish, County Roscommon, where the echoes of the footsteps of her deceased great-uncle and his comrades had fallen silent o’er the fields. In 2005 she introduced her first Irish tome, They Put the Flag a-Flyin’ The Roscommon Volunteers 1913 to 1923, now in its third edition. Her next book, Echoes of Their Footsteps, Volume I, is a history of Ireland’s War of Independence, including the months between the Truce and the beginning of the Civil War. The companion edition, Echoes of Their Footsteps Volume II, documents the actions of men and women dedicated to Ireland’s freedom, the well-planned but sometimes desperate attacks and ambushes, the political pronouncements and figureheads, and the sorrowful events that engulfed the soul of the people of Ireland during the years 1922 through 1924.

Thorne was born in Kansas City, Missouri, where she grew up and later graduated from Avila College. Advanced degrees from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the University of Oregon followed. She has previously authored four books, including a theatre history and a compendium of historical snippets about people and events at both ends of the Oregon Trail. She and her husband, Lew, live in Eugene, Oregon. You can contact contact Kathleen Here

Comment by The Wild Geese on January 19, 2024 at 4:32pm

They Put the Flag a-Flyin'

Lyrics by Lew & Kathleen Hegarty Thorne
Sung by Lew, Everett & Kathleen Thorne
(to the traditional melody of "Go Lassie Go")

There's a story to be told
of those who dared to ask the question,
"After seven hundred years
are we the generation?"

Let the winds of freedom blow.

From the townlands and the fields
came Volunteers to bravely challenge
The mighty chains of bondage,
and then paid the price to break them.

Let the winds of freedom blow
and bring peace to all the island
From Roscommon's rolling hills
through the four green fields of Ireland.
Let them blow, forever blow.

What they won and what they lost
is somehow cloaked in mystery,
While the echoes of their footsteps
ring down the halls of history.

Let the winds of freedom blow
and bring peace to all the island
From Roscommon's rolling hills
through the four green fields of Ireland.
Let them blow, forever blow.

Now their days have come and gone
yet their spirit's still survivin'.
You can see it in the flutter
of the flag they put a flyin'.

Let the winds of freedom blow
and bring peace to all the island
From Roscommon's rolling hills
through the four green fields of Ireland.
Let them blow, forever blow.

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